Discovering Game Development in Alberta | By Hanhmi Huynh

The game development industry remains one of the fastest growing industries, and there is no doubt that there is a surge in game production and studios here in Canada. Globally, the video game industry is estimated to generate over 100 billion dollars in revenue annually. In Canada, a recent report from the Entertainment Software Association of Canada revealed that the video game industry contributed 3 billion dollars to the Canadian economy in 2015 with Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario leading the frontier in video game production. Some of the most recognizable games to come out of Canada include the Assassin’s Creed, FIFA World Cup and NHL franchises, as well as multi-million dollar franchises Mass Effect and Dragon Age from Alberta’s own BioWare. In Alberta, it is a market that continues to expand with more companies like MADSOFT Games, Beamdog, and Rocketfuel Games among 27 game studios in Alberta.  Many of these developers will be featured at the second annual Game Discovery Exhibition (GDX) set to take place in Edmonton on May 7th and 8th, 2016. I had the pleasure of taking some time to talk to GDX Director, Derek Kwan; GDX Co-Project Manager & Board of Directors, Mickael Zerihoun; and GDX Social Media Manager, Dayna Lacoursiere, to chat a little bit about the event and the game development industry in Alberta.

How did GDX start and what does the event include?

With a background in education, a love for games, and experience with the Video Game Art and Design Club at the University of Alberta, Derek reflects on the beginning of GDX as a time of contemplation and seeking collaboration.  “We tried to figure out – how do we make games? What is something we can do in our spare time that would allow us to make games?” he explains. “One of things that we really wanted to do was try to get access to people who did music and fine arts. Originally with GDX, we wanted to show off some projects, encourage arts people to come, and that would allow us to network with them. Tat was in 2014.”  After being encouraged by professors to take the initiative city-wide, the project began to evolve and increase in scope.  “We started talking to the game development community in Edmonton, got more funding, got in touch with eHub, TEC Edmonton, and that’s what really drove the Edmonton focus.” Derek notes that ten Calgarian developers have been involved as well, “So it’s really grown into GDX Alberta.”

How did GDX expand from a campus initiative into something so big?

“It’s weird to be in the middle of it because everything has been so incremental. You don’t really feel like you are making progress at times,” Derek describes. “And then we talked to people and they told us they had lots of fun at the event and it was really useful. Some of the guys we have talked to have been able to publish their games because of the event, and that’s the type of impact that we want to have – really growing the industry.”

Mickael notes that the scope of the project has increased significantly. “Last year we only had about six sessions and panels. This year we are going to have 14-15 panels, sessions, and speakers with industry professionals in town. People from BioWare, BeamDog, indie developers.” Panels will be broken into industry discipline, focusing on themes like game design, art and sound production, and bringing games to a global market. Furthermore, involvement includes serious game development, or “using games as a medium for something [ie. education] that isn’t strictly entertainment focused.”

Derek adds that the “Focus this year is also on sustainability and economic diversification through games. Through the serious stuff, we want to drive people to look at games as a tool to augment education, healthcare, training – different types of uses of games. We want to help everybody who is a game creator in Edmonton and Calgary. That’s why we are involving the serious side and diving back into it, and saying this is part of your industry too, so please make sure you are supporting it as well.” Other partners for collaboration include Table Top Cafe, which will be a part of the board game lounge, and the Smash Bros community, who are involved in the games tournaments.

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Can you tell us more about the emerging game development community?

Mickael notes that “last year, we met with all these separate pockets of community, with some making games. But now the same community has grown into a bigger one. Last year it was harder to encourage people to come show off their stuff. But this year people are saying, ‘Oh GDX is coming up, I’m signing up right now.’ The whole process has been easier, the games are more polished. Lots of people have developed the same games or started working on new projects.” Dayna says, “Events like this also show off the success stories, so emerging developers come to GDX, see lots of people and get lots of feedback, and they come back next year.”

Derek emphasizes the underlying importance of development. “The story of GDX is that we really do want more game development here, especially since oil is down. We do have a very educated workforce, we do have a lot of talent – like the university produces some of the best computer scientists, AI, and we have a really strong narrative. But really, while it is growing it needs help, and that’s what we want to show. There are tons of people who want to develop games, both serious and recreational, and they need our support. They need Alberta to champion the cause, to say ‘this is a vector for our growth, this is an opportunity for us to move off of our oil economy and more towards a tech economy’ because that is where it is growing. It’s more sustainable.” Mickael elaborates by noting, “There is a lot of talent here, many programs, graduates, lot of students that graduate in game development streams, but their first choice is to leave the province because there aren’t that many opportunities here. So that just leads to this drain that really never resolves.”

Do you know if there is a lot of government funding going into the gaming industry at all?

“The way that this industry has been funded has really been under the radar,” Derek explains. “We have so many folks who are building stuff that we never really hear from. Because of that, the support for it has been very sparse. Since nobody has been there to really show that we do have developers, the government doesn’t really look at it as an active community, but that is not true at all.” Comparisons with other regions in Canada and internationally reflect the importance of recognizing the gaming industry. “I think the challenge here is that games are kind of a nascent industry. Even in the States, people don’t really understand the use that well. Quebec, BC, and Ontario have done a really good job at doing their research and recognizing yes, this is a growth industry. We can employ computer scientists, musicians, writers, producers, business folks, marketers. That’s why they have been able to get ahead, in front of these industries to attract them there.”

“To add on to that regarding BC and specifically Vancouver and Montreal, that’s why they are currently hubs for the game communities, ” Mickael notes. “Whether it’s indie or big companies coming over and creating employment there, hiring people from all these fields, because they are there, it attracts everyone.” Derek agrees, explaining that, “A lot of our talent goes there. I grew up in Alberta, and I appreciate what Alberta has given me. I’d love to be able to give back and make sure that we don’t turn into a ghost town.”

Where do you want to see Edmonton in 3-5 years?

“I want to see that Edmonton and Calgary are in a place where we are like Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa. For us to set up a bunch of developers, you need a place for them to get power and their laptops – that’s all they need,” explains Derek. “Whereas for other industries, like manufacturing, you need to build up a lot of infrastructure. So I’d love to see us right away really driving towards having a sustainable ecosystem which includes not only having indie, small, medium, and enterprise sized studios, but also having post-secondary feed into that. When you have talent from the post-secondary side being able to provide high quality work to these studios, they are going to make amazing things, attract more people here. Even if they leave, they might start new studios, and then there’s a whole group of new studios that’s growing and thriving alongside each other. I’m looking for the ecosystem.”

Mickael and Dayna, how did you get involved in video game design?

Dayna recalls, “I got involved by taking a course in video game designs. CMPUT 250 is a course that was started by BioWare. I went from there to the GDX. I didn’t really know about video games that much.” Mickael, who has been President of the Video Game Art and Design Club for two years, says, “The whole idea of how computers work and how to program things, that’s why. Then games fell into that and it was a good match up.” Both stress the impact of taking courses involving teamwork and creating a game from start to finish, which has informed the goal of giving their peers a place to showcase their work. Mickael explains, “It’s all about attracting people that are passionate, good talent.” Dayna adds that “video games are a lot more work than they expect until they are building one.”

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What do you hope attendees will get out of the event?

Game developers – we hope that as a game developer, you would come to GDX to see what other people are working on,” says Mickael. “A) maybe you can get involved with those projects – many of those projects are looking for more talent to recruit, so maybe you can join a team. B) you get inspired to make your own games because you realize there is such a vibrant community. You go through some of the panels, ask some questions to some professionals we have, and gain some new knowledge.”

Dayna adds, “From the attendee part, from my perspective, I didn’t know video games existed. I would have loved to come to an event like this and see this area is so much bigger than I think it is. You can learn all about it at this one event.” Derek reiterates, “I think for us, really linking the attendees to the developers, that’s what we want to do. The developers really need your feedback, they want to understand people who might not conventionally play games, they want to know what you are thinking. We are an exhibition so we don’t sell anything; it’s more to show off what people are making. So by bringing these two audiences together, we are hoping we can provide a platform on which folks who make games can really improve their products and make them exceptional.”

After that insightful conversation, I’m excited to see how the gaming industry develops and to hear more from the talent emerging on a local level. GDX Edmonton will be held on May 7th-8th at MacEwan University, celebrating the vibrant gaming community in Alberta. To learn more about GDX Edmonton, you can check out their website at www.gdxedmonton.com.

Photography courtesy of Leanne Klimek.

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